A 3,000-mile passage from Annapolis to Iceland sees Andy Schell crossing tacks with viking routes of old on a spectacular sail via Newfoundland and Greenland

Heavy, heavy fog blanketed the boat. We had a rotating watch standing on the bow looking for growlers. Everything, and everyone, was soaked. Falken was charging fast through the horizon-less sea. We would slow down the second we saw our first radar target. Ten knots among icebergs was not my idea of excitement.

In the words of Led Zeppelin:

We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.
Will drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde, sing and cry
Valhalla, I am coming.

We downshifted. With three reefs in the mainsail and a scrap of staysail we maintained our windward position and picked our way through the 60-mile ice belt that guarded the west coast of Greenland on the approach to Nanortalik in a 25-knot north-westerly with zero visibility, avoiding the big bergs with the radar and the smaller ones visually. At least it was daylight out.

I really wish I’d had the wherewithal to blast Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song that morning of our Greenland landfall – it was a pretty metal arrival – but alas, in the moment I was too focused on not sinking the boat. Now though, reflecting on what was one of the prouder moments of my sailing career, I can’t get the song out of my head. It’s become my soundtrack to the Viking route.


Voyage from Vinland

The historic Viking route traverses the far North Atlantic between Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. Technically we were doing it in reverse. Erik the Red, bound for mythical ‘Vinland’ would have come from the east, hop-scotching his way in open longboats from Iceland towards North America. Where ‘Vinland’ really was remains a mystery to this day but there’s no doubt that Vikings established communities at least as far south as Newfoundland.

While the route had been lodged in my consciousness for as long as I’ve been reading about sailing (check out Vinland Voyage for a wonderful account of making the trip in a wooden yacht in the 1960s), it never really occurred to me that I’d sail it. Before my wife, Mia, and I started 59° North, I’d had Svalbard as my own personal Thule, with ideas of sailing there in our first boat Arcturus, a 1960s glassfibre yawl. I’d long pinned Admiralty charts of the Arctic archipelago on my office wall back in Pennsylvania.

But then we sold Arcturus, started 59° North and really did sail to Svalbard in 2018, making it all the way up to 80º North and accomplishing a life’s goal of mine. However, the Arctic is addictive. It was time to aim high once again, this time shooting for Greenland.

Falken south of Nanortalik, heading towards the eastern entrance of Prince Christian Sound. Photo: 59° North Sailing

While not even technically Arctic sailing, the Viking route – which by our track lies entirely below 66.5° north, though only just – offers challenges beyond sailing to Svalbard. There’s more ice to contend with. The passage from Newfoundland at 800-plus miles is a lot longer than Norway to Spitsbergen (350 miles) and much foggier. Because it’s below the Arctic Circle, it gets dark at night, making ice navigation and even anchor watches much more difficult because you can’t see anything.

The beauty of the Viking route as we sailed it, west to east, is twofold. As you sail north and east from America conditions get progressively more challenging, allowing you time to build up confidence, especially navigating in fog, before the cold, ice and uncharted uncertainty begins in Greenland. And the route via Prince Christian Sound gives you options.

I spent the week in St John’s, Newfoundland, studying the weather and the ice charts. We’d billed the trip to our crew as a transatlantic via Greenland, but we never promised we’d make it through Prince Christian Sound at all. In some years the sound never clears of ice, making the route impassable. So we always had the option to stay offshore and round Cape Farewell far out to sea, avoiding the ice, then continue nonstop to Iceland.

By August, though, the ice was getting less dense by the day – the main threat was icebergs, not sea ice, easier to manage and easier to see on radar – and I felt confident we’d get through.

The author at the helm. Photo: Photo: 59° North Sailing

Falken flies north

Falken, our ex-round-the-world Farr 65, is the culmination of everything I’ve learned in eight seasons of running ocean sailing passages for paying crew with 59° North (see YW June 2023 and online for how 59° North completed the refit). In short she’s a simple, robust, easy-to-sail thoroughbred, purpose-built to sail with a crew of 10 – without many frills but with much greater comfort than her racing yacht roots.

Contrary to the current high latitude vogue, she’s not a metal boat, nor does she have an inside steering station or even a protected cockpit. The only real high latitude-specific feature is dual Eberspächer forced-air heaters down below, which kept the interior warm and dry even on the coldest nights.

Halfway across the Labrador Sea, between Newfoundland and Greenland. Photo: 59° North Sailing

A friend of mine who ran a charter business out of Iceland even told me he preferred his fibreglass sloop for going into the ice in East Greenland over their flagship steel ketch, which certainly looked the part.

“The ice dents the steel,” he said, noting the myriad bumps and dings along the bow of Arktika. “But, so long as you’re going slow enough, the ice just bounces off the fibreglass boat.”

We never tested that theory on Falken thankfully. But my point is that you don’t need a specific boat to sail to some of the ‘tamer’ reaches of the far north or south. Any boat properly outfitted for serious ocean cruising will suffice, so long as you are diligent about not getting yourself into heavy ice (greater than 3/10ths coverage) and practise fundamental seamanship skills when the visibility disappears.

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Iceberg off the bow

“I rubbed my eyes like a cartoon character with both hands and looked out into the low distant fog, straining to see the berg while my mind tried to catch up,” wrote James Frederick in the log after I woke him in the middle of the night with an excited “Iceberg!” call to his bunk.

“Someone passed me the binoculars and pointed off our port bow. There in the distance stood a white pyramid, glowing more like the special effects from a Harry Potter film than real life.”

James Frederick (aka ‘James the Sailor Man’ on YouTube, and YW contributor who is sailing a solo circumnavigation on his Alberg 30 Tritiea) had joined us to act as documentarian. He’d jumped at the chance to join Falken, excited to see ice for the first time – and he got his chance a few nights out from Newfoundland.

James Frederick on bow watch approaching 5,000ft cliffs in Prince Christian Sound. Photo: 59° North Sailing

For much of that first 800-mile leg, Falken was a magic carpet. Seas were calm, the wind was on the beam and despite the increasing latitude and slate-grey skies the sailing was effortless.

As we crossed the 59th parallel, the skies parted and the light cloud cover gave way to a brilliantly clear sky and bright moon. A few minutes later the sky gave us a magical display as a faint glow to the north-east bloomed into an electric display of the Northern Lights. Somehow it never occurred to me it was a possibility we’d see them on this trip. What started as an odd glow behind a wayward cloud grew and spread right over the boat, the curtains of light pulsing and dancing around the masthead, disappearing for a time and then returning with even more brilliance.

When you’ve never seen it before, and are not expecting it, the aurora borealis is confusing. What appears at first as wispy clouds, thin enough to see the stars through, eventually resolves into a dancing curtain of light that sometimes stretches across the entire horizon. It’s whiter than you see in photos, especially when the moon is out, but when it’s really pulsing the colours pop, greens and purples radiating across the sky. Soon enough the sky directly above us was dancing.

The view from the top of the Ikerasassuaq Weather Station. Photo: 59° North Sailing

These Wonka-esque visuals were accompanied by many other sensations. Sleep deprivation at 0200. The cold, dry wind on your cheeks, and the fresh smell of the northern sea air, all while Falken raced effortlessly across the smooth sea at 9 knots.

But the blissful conditions had to come to an end. While we were able to time our arrival to the ice belt in daylight (see page 43 for weather tactics), we could do nothing about the fog, and as dawn broke the morning after our Northern Lights show, heavy mist descended over the boat and we switched to instruments, navigating around the big bergs on radar, and keeping a lookout on the bow for bergy bits and growlers.

Landfall in Greenland

Landfall in Nanortalik, southern Greenland, was surreal. One minute we were groping our way through the fog and ice, and quite literally the next, as we closed the land, the sun was shining, knife-edge mountain peaks appeared out of thin air above the clouds. The sea was quiet and we docked alongside a village, the randomly arranged buildings all painted bright and brilliant. Icebergs drifted just offshore the local soccer field, and Inuit families hung laundry out to dry in the sunshine.

But we didn’t linger in Nanortalik. One night and a perfect weather forecast was all we needed to head into the fjords, the passage’s real mission.

The surreal became the unreal. A landscape of barren, jagged mountains that soared to 5,000ft, straight from the ocean. Icebergs scattered around the boat glowed fluorescent blue in the cloudless sunshine. The days continued like this in a perfect flat calm for the better part of a week. When a breath of air filled in, it was cold. When it died, the sunshine warmed us so effectively I went barefoot for a time.

Spectacular Northern Lights at the 59th parallel. Photo: 59° North Sailing

After anchoring in a stupendous, uncharted bay about 40 miles from Nanortalik, tipped off to me by my mentor the legendary John Kretschmer, we continued east, flying the drone to get photos and doing small odd jobs around the boat to prep for the next leg to Iceland. James and I went aloft to re-rig the lazy jacks; the crew hoisted the storm trysail for practice and to check the sheet leads and set the tack length.

Prince Christian Sound is only 70 miles from one end to the other, so with fair weather and some diesel fuel you can make the transit in one long day under power. In fact we didn’t sail at all in the fjord, hoisting the mainsail really only for the drone photos, and the majority of our time that week was spent at anchor, exploring in the dinghy and ashore.

The eastern terminus of Prince Christian Sound is less dramatic than its counterpart in the west. The mountains lose their teeth and the land slopes gently downwards as you sail east. But there’s one last playground to explore while you stage to get across Denmark Strait: the Ikerasassuaq Weather Station.

Falken’s ice-free, uncharted anchorage at the western entrance of Prince Christian Sound. Photo: 59° North Sailing

Apparently the place was originally put there during World War II by the Allies to get better North Atlantic weather forecasts. It continues to operate, though it’s mostly unmanned these days, save for a couple of times a year, as per the sailing directions.

Ashore it’s a sprawling complex of old buildings, decrepit staircases, a couple of tiny helicopter landing pads, an ingenious suspension bridge, myriad antennas arrayed on the hilltops and industrial detritus strewn about. It reminded me of a landscape from the old Nintendo 64 Golden Eye video game. The view from the top of the hill out into the Atlantic is spectacular, with humongous icebergs floating as far as you can see. As for the mosquitos… Ashore, they swarm. On the boat at anchor there was just enough breeze to keep them away.

Finding that anchorage at Ikerasassuaq was like throwing darts. There is a small wharf that can accommodate a boat or two of up to maybe 45ft, but Falken would never fit. Like everywhere in Greenland, the problem is the depth. There was one small knob of gravelly kelp forest of 20m, surrounded by 50m ravines, and it took two tries to land the anchor on the 20m spot. By the time the boat swung around our depth sounder was reading 45m! The anchor held, but it was so completely flat calm that you couldn’t really tell. In a blow, I wouldn’t have slept.

The village of Nanortalik in southern Greenalnd. Photo: 59° North Sailing

We spent two nights more in Greenland than I’d initially anticipated, waiting for the weather offshore to turn. I could say two nights more than ‘planned’, but that’s not really accurate, because even though we sail to a schedule, I knew better than to firmly plan anything in that part of the world. What I did plan was time to wait.

At Ikerasassuaq, we switched from ‘explorer’ mode into ‘weather window’ mode, a fine balancing act of prepping the boat for the next leg across Denmark Strait to the Westfjords of Iceland, conserving energy for the upcoming watch rotation, while trying to stay present and experience our last few hours of Greenland. This conflict between conserving energy versus making the most of our fleeting time was never more apparent than when I hit on the idea of swimming with a big growler near the boat. Beneath the surface it had the shape of a teal blue alien spaceship, but alive. Bubbles floated to the surface from the melting ice. The experience was so profound that I got back in the water and swam around a bit more just to see it a second time.

An epic landfall in Iceland’s Westfjords under spinnaker. Photo: 59° North Sailing

Onwards to Iceland

The passage to Iceland was difficult and rough, another 650 miles in open ocean, and we finally had to pay our dues for the magical weather we’d had in Greenland. Traversing the Denmark Strait was upwind most of the way. The waves grew big and steep, flat walls of sea that kicked the bow skyward and then opened up a hole in the ocean behind them through which Falken would disappear with a thundering crash. We spent 18 hours hove-to to give the boat and crew a rest.

But the weather gods gave us our final gift of the passage just as land appeared on the horizon. A south-westerly sprung up in the afternoon, tempting us to hoist the kite and finish this epic adventure in style. Just as that iceberg had coaxed me into my drysuit and into the water, the beautiful 12-knot south-westerly put a little devil on my shoulder saying ‘Go on, get that chute up!’ The angel on my other shoulder instantly agreed, and so Falken sailed the last 50 miles into the Westfjords under her bright pink, 3,200ft2 S2, making 10 knots on an easy, flat sea, the crew taking turn to steer while I revelled in those last miles at sea, the best of a 3,000-plus mile voyage from Annapolis to Iceland.

That you can sail that route hurts my brain a little bit. To walk onto the boat in a place as familiar to me as the Chesapeake Bay, where I grew up sailing, then step off again in a place as other-worldly and magical as the Westfjords of Iceland… well, that right there is why I go to sea.

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